January Q&A

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1. What is your mission?
I’ve written a list of 20 main objectives for the year and expanded on some of them, others will come throughout the year when I’m able to add to them.

2.  Can people change?
Yes, they can make conscious decisions to change their habits and sometimes they are forced to deal with a situation that forces change. 

3. What are you reading right now?
I’m halfway through Political Psychology, a third done with What Would Great Economists Do, and a fifth of the way through the Origin of Species on Kindle.

4. The best part of today?
Running a mile and getting an email from Caleb less than 24 hours of him being underway, especially not knowing if I’d be able to hear from him. 

5. What was the last restaurant you went to?
Dome yesterday to get a croissant that I put in my plastic bag I carry in my purse for its foldability, otherwise, I’d use one of the canvas ones from the States.

6. Today was tough because…
It wasn’t. All I had to do was pack my bag for Georgia, pick up my lens from the shop, do dishes and take out the trash, and have dinner with friends. 

7. You are lucky; how so or not so?
I got to keep my carry-on bag with me, got a free lunch, a cheaper room, and service enough to find it. 

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8. What song is stuck in your head?
Mostly Christmas jingles from today but the guys in the lobby were listening to YMCA.

9. Was today typical? Why or why not?
Not, I saw 3 religious buildings in Mtskheta and got to search for a place to sleep in Gori. 

10. Write down something that inspired you today.
Driving through the snow-touched trees and seeing them covered in snow on the mountains. 

11. Today you lost…
Maybe some time driving with Dima but gained views I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. 

12. What’s your favorite accessory?
My camera to capture the awesome, my phone to guide me there, and my coat to keep me warm and dry. 

13. Where do you want to travel next?
Sharm el-Sheikh for diving and Morocco for hiking and South Africa with Justin. 

14. Are you a leader or a follower?
I followed today, behind the local drivers and the guys to their fancy hotel for free dinner and secondhand smoke. 

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15. On a scale of 1-10, how was your lunch today?
7, I tried a new tea that I’m saving half of for Caleb and a layered nut cake that I ate out of the bag.

16. Do you owe someone money? Does someone owe you?
Nope, just lessons learned in how to travel better next time. 

17. What’s the oldest thing you’re wearing today?
My promise ring from 2007 before my wedding ring in 2008… and my favorite bird, the owl, necklace from our 11-year anniversary. 

18. What was peaceful about today?
Making a moisturizing serum and some resin with rose petals, lavender bulbs, and dried lemon as lids/coasters and posting pictures of the candles Justin made yesterday, that I labeled. 

19. List three foods you ate today.
Al Abraaj bread with hummus, tortellini, bowtie pasta, fried rice, and sugar cookies.

20. Are you holding a grudge? About?
No, humans will make their choices and it’s not on me to make them change but to make decisions that fit my goals. 

21. What are you looking forward to?
The week I will be spending in east South Africa with Justin and Wendy whom I met Jan 3 and today, respectively. 

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22. Are you seeking security or adventure?
A bit of both as I plan my trip to South Africa, which is on the Top Ten list of crime countries, with Justin and Wendy. 

23. Do you need a break? From what?
I actually need to get to blogging about Georgia before I go to South Africa, but I should have time to write about both before my trip to the States in April. 

24. If you were going to start your own company, what would it be?
I’m actually becoming a hidden partner in Designed by Snow which creates candles, soaps, serums, and other relaxing bath-inspired products. 

25. What makes “you” you?
My ability to seem to connect with people only to never really keep in touch with them. 

26. Today you needed more…
I slept till 2pm after going to bed early because I’m dealing with being sick while I should be packing for my trip to South Africa in two days. 

27. Which art movement best describes you today?
Realism, as the reality of my trip to South Africa settles in and I leave jewelry and electronics behind. 

28. How do you describe home?
Wherever I happen to be sleeping at the moment, but more so where I can be myself. 

29. What was the last TV show you watched?
“The Story of God with Morgan Freeman: Heaven and Hell” on the flight to South Africa.

30. What do you want to forget?
The little unhappy moments of this trip.

31. Who do you want to be?
Exactly who I am, regardless of how others treat me. 

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Shadows, Statues, Splashes

This morning started out with a treat. I was making my way out of the hotel as I normally would until I noticed the old guy, in all black, next to a space heater, with his shoes off, passed out between the Christmas tree and the door. Perhaps he’s the live version of Ask Jeeves (founded in 1996 and shortened to ask.com in 2006) but I left him in his sedated seat to his admirable dreams and stepped outside to a black sky illuminated on the ground by blue, white, and gold lights.

I turned right and this guy put his arms up to form an X across his chest to signal that I was going the wrong way on a one-way road. The white Christmas stars faded to yellow street lights as I drove west. As the sky began to brighten I noticed how wet the road still was and that the few cars were on there way to work. I saw some men in construction-orange coats and wanted to join them in standing on the church corner discussing weather, traffic patterns, homemade wine, etc.

I arrived in Poti and figured the direction the sea was straight forward but my first attempt led me into port territory and my lost driving delivered me to a wealthier cemetery. It’s a good thing there are more pedestrians than drivers as I slowly maneuver the car around potholes, like witches’ cauldrons of deep gravel soup, something children would make for their siblings to try. I have a friend from high school who still lives at the end of a street like these, but the holes of destruction are shallow and of the countable variety.

In the lighthouse parking lot is a playground, one that looks like the zombie apocalypse wiped out all the kids in mid-play on the plastic jungle gym and other makeshift entertainment ideas. I believe this belongs to the ‘Monastery named after the Iberin Holy Mother icon.’ Next to that looks like a homeless dog shelter built from a broken desk covered in pieces of concrete wall and a tarp. I’m in no rush to get inside when I can hear the seagulls fishing and the white capped waves; which based on the Beaufort Wind Scale, developed in 1805, suggests the gentle breeze is traveling at 7-10 knots.

All this weather is enticing me closer to the jumping water and cluster of clouds. I’m always more eager, when I travel, to experience the elements of nature vs feeling cold in a manmade space, as if both aren’t events to be appreciated for what they are and what those moments fully contain. With this aura of appreciation around me, I walk up to the lighthouse, the oldest navigational facility on the Black Sea Coast of Georgia, having been complete by British engineers on the River Rioni in 1864.

The red and white striped building is now run by the State Hydrographic Service and consists of 128 tons of cast iron to include 160 steps for a 36 meter climb that gives the light a range of 17 nautical miles. An older man came from one of the surrounding buildings to unlock the lighthouse, just for me, and though he climbed to the top to ensure I saw the expansive view, I was left to interpret the artifacts by myself — some in Georgian and English and others in Georgian and Russian.

Kobuleti Nature Reserve

I enjoyed his quiet company and the feeling of not being rushed, but left to appreciate a modern working piece of history and taking as many photos as I wanted without waiting on others (selfish me leaking out as I’m used to public buildings with a spiral staircase being full of bodies). I wonder if they keep track of visitors and if the man enjoyed the break from whatever he’d been doing before my arrival. He locks up behind me and I’m on my way.

Stopped at a market for a bag of a baked variety and noticed that the street lights, both red and green, have countdowns so there’s no confusion as to how much time you have left. I appreciate Georgia loving their drivers enough to help reduce traffic incidents, especially when there’s some form of water on their roads for a majority of the year. I also learn that the police cars will turn off their lights for speed traps as they drive around with them constantly on.

view from Castle of Kajeti

I pass the Poti St. Virgin Cathedral in the middle of a large roundabout in the center of town that reminds me of the Hagia Sophia, mostly just the windows contrasting under the shiny dome. I park in front of the gate to Kolkheti National Park and let myself into the courtyard. The sign tells me that the lowlands have been inhabited for 15,000 years. The park was established in 1835 and internationally recognized in 1996 to protect the flora and fauna of some 43,000 hectares (106,200+ acres).

There’s a mention of the Greeks building a village that connects the area with the mythology of the Golden Fleece, a story of gods, jealousy, and ram sex (Jason and the Argonauts) which is believed to come from using wool to mine for gold and then hanging the stretched hides to dry before shaking or combing them out. It’s said that the winged ram, god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians, became the constellation Aries, which is a porpoise in the Marshall Islands and twin inspectors in China.

I feel like I’m entering a hotel but once inside I notice the large wall covered in pictures, jars, and cases of creatures with fins, fur, and feathers that resembles a museum. I’m told from here I would usually be taken on a two-hour boat tour of the Paliastomi Lake to include a picnic near a giant bird-watching tower but the rain has changed those plans. I’m given a brochure in Georgian that shows a speedboat and a kayak and told to call when I’m able to come back.

The next national park, Kobuleti Nature Reserve, shall meet a similar fate. I drove to the entrance without knowing it (because it’s hidden behind a residential area, like driving into someone’s backyard) and had driven back to the street where I saw the arrow pointing to the park, so I reversed until I noticed the sign over the mud pit. I drove towards it, but with all the rain these wetlands seemed too treacherous and precious to explore and destroy with my curiosity.

Batumi Botanical Gardens

I had added this place to my itinerary for the white sphagnum moss (that’s great for orchids and bonsai plants for its water retention abilities — holding 16 to 26 times their dry weight in water) and the Caspian turtle (striped-neck terrapin that lives around the Black Sea, Meditteranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf) and marsh terrapin (African helmeted turtle that is known to hibernate in drought and very cold conditions) that were to be seen from a suspended bridge.

The GPS system I’m using seems to have been tested by a crow or someone who drives these curvy roads by skipping some of the turns and definitely not stopping to look at anything. I can’t fault the street scientists though as they gave me the data to do the research and realize I’d need more time as a traveler and double that in weather conditions that make driving either more fun or more dangerous depending on your personality type; and definitely more engaging.

I get to Petra Fortress (its Byzantine name; Castle of Kajeti, Georgian name) in Tsikhisdziri to find a deserted and seemingly modern forgotten castle in the midst of construction to perhaps cover the muddy pathways to encourage tourists to visit without feeling like they’re destroying history with their feet. It was precisely the precarious wall-walks (more like a wraparound balcony on the southeast sides) in a Secret Garden setting that encouraged me to find the entrance five floors up.

The salty wind and summer rains have aged this beauty and if I could look this good after being built in 535 then I would drink from the fountain of youth or be made by the Greeks to withstand the history these stones have endured, especially with their view of the beach below. I see the sky falling in the distance and leave the castle. I pass a roadside bench next to a hammock then some closed farm stands before stopping to admire the Chakviststali River and the seemingly homemade suspended bridges.

I’m grateful for the handrail as I walk on planks that remind me of a giant Jenga game, a five-piece puzzle for toddlers, or someone not fortunate enough to afford a dentist. I figured if a grandfather trusted the workmanship with his granddaughter in-hand than I should be up for the experience on more than one of these water crossings, whether over a serene or white-water portion, I was kept dry. I park near what looks like the entrance to Batumi Botanical Gardens and think I’ll wait for the rain to lessen.

I get out of the car and watch the short train go by. The security guard comes out of his station to walk me to the ticket booth. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I went along with him, past the guy who offered me juice from his cafe, until I realized I’d left my purse in the car and I’d need that to pay the 15 lari entrance fee to see the park that covers one square kilometer. This place used to be called Green Cape in 1892 and has collected some 1800 plants, of which 90 are of Caucasian origin.

I’m told when I purchase my ticket, with my camera under my jacket, that the bus is a 300 meters walk, but that’s where the other woman sits to collect more money for a one-way ride. I didn’t want to be soaking wet but I also didn’t want to pay 5 lari for a handful of nuts (pecans in-shell), a hand on my knee, and an offer for a free ride back outside of the park in the driver’s friends’ Mercedes. I’d had to turn around on my walk to catch the eight-passenger covered golf-cart.

I thought the bus made four stops but this one only made two and luckily the heavy rain has gone for now and I can enjoy the walk back amongst wet green trees and their soaked brown leaves. Perhaps going to a garden, when most plants are in their sleep phase is like going to a museum that’s under construction — there’s still stuff to see but it’s probably not what you came for. I’m ok with that. I don’t need to travel to places only when flowers are in bloom and crowds are in masses. I get my creativity from experience but I’m better able to express it in solitude.

The “Oregon Ravine” may have representatives of Blue spruce, Coast redwood, cypress, and juniper trees but it doesn’t have the same familiar breeze. The nice part about Japanese and New Zealand gardens in the States is that I haven’t been to their local counterparts for comparison. Having these trees out of place is like seeing a polar bear in San Diego or a Moai, the heads of Easter Island, in a London museum; though I appreciate their ability to inspire people to learn, to travel, and to care about parts of the world they may never see and give them a sense of home overseas.

Normally, I’d be more exploratory but I seem to be the only one in the park, so if I forget how to walk or where I’m going, I could be lost when the next downpour comes. These gardens had a lot of work put into their layout and the use of sticks and stones to add to the peacefulness that nature seems to demand of man, unless he’s in the wild like the plants and animals that are in a constant mode of fight, flight, or freeze. Amongst the floral and beach views is a sticker that stands out. If you like cats, tattoos, and murals you can check out Sakvo @skvgknrs.

My socks are wet. I will need to change them at the car… maybe back into the old pair… shit. I book a room at Hotel N 16, for 60 lari, with breakfast and it’s only a block from the water. Batumi is beautiful, even through the rain. I find some parking nearby and pass by the piazza and St. Nicolas Church before I check-in and pick up my room key. I stop at Restaurant Classic on the corner as they advertise Georgian food on their a-frame sign, so I get my favorite eggplant with walnuts and try the mushroom chashushuli that comes steaming in a cast-iron dish with onions.

With a renewed energy source, I’ll be able to enjoy the seaside attractions without my hunger being a distraction as I want to make the most of this momentary dry before the sun sets. The port is a magical place — a mix of people walking and ducks swimming, boats floating and birds flying, houses sitting and snow falling, skyscrapers reaching and wind blowing, and clouds gathering and art showing. I make my way to the Ali and Nino statue based on the love story in the 1937 novel of the same name that inspired the 2016 film about an Azerbaijani man and a Georgian woman in a time of war.

It starts to sprinkle again so I walk back to the hotel to drop off my purse and camera and borrow a hotel umbrella (if I’d have known about them sooner) and pick up my bag from the car. I finally take off my wet socks and elevate my tired feet for a bit before putting them in a steamy shower. I unwind by trying to photograph the tiniest moth creature on the glass wall in the bathroom and looking at my route for tomorrow.

I’m woken at midnight to the sound of fireworks as Georgia celebrates their Old New Year as the Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar. When the clock strikes the citizens are allowed to bite into a gozinaki — caramelized walnuts, fried in boiled honey, sometimes with pepper and vinegar, and cut into a rhombus shape. There’s also basila, a human-shaped cake named after the Christian saint Basil, that comes from a pagan cult in eastern Georgia to bring fertility into the new year.

The New Years day on January 1st is extended into Bedoba, “a day of luck”, where it’s believed that what happens on this day will set the trend for the year, so it’s feasting and cheer for everyone here. Then there’s Christmas on the 7th with a street parade, Alilo, in costumes and lots of carol singing and special khachapuri eating. Their Christmas tree is made from shaved hazelnut branches, decorated with dried fruits and flowers and burned after the holidays to keep the misfortunes of last year in the past. Tonight would’ve been great for couchsurfing or a family adoption, but then I’d have missed the view from my balcony of a cloudy moon and yellow-lit street.

Posted in Animals, Art, Education, Food, History, Holidays, Media, People, Photography, Plants, Travel, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Up the Stairs, Up the Mountain

A woman had to unlock the giant door and let me out downstairs into the back courtyard. I walked around to the front and found a diesel station on the corner where the guy charged me 0.11 tetri more than what the pump read but I wasn’t going to argue over 3.5 cents. I drove away from Martvili with the sky varying shades of blue thinking the sun was just twenty minutes away from shining, but I had forgotten that I was in Georgia, in the winter, and was heading up into the snowy mountains.

The darkness would lift, but there was a pervading gray and storm-white color that would persist throughout the morning. I passed a couple churches with their familiar warm yellow glow calling out for attention but I know that not every building was made for me to enter nor every fence built for me to cross so I continue to pass houses and forlorn structures with a reverence for rest even though it’s been decades since some of these places have seen life inside them, let alone sleeping in past 8:30 am.

I arrive in Tskaltubo and though some factories look abandoned I’ve seen homes that look the same way with fresh laundry on the line. Georgia sets the standard of not judging a book, person, or country by their cover, clothes, or architectural appearance. The only movement I see is a taxi driver in a roundabout that seems to be having a smoke while standing outside the car, even though smoking wasn’t banned in taxis, houses, psychiatric clinics, penitentiaries, or casinos when it was restricted from schools, hospitals, libraries, etc in May 2018.

I can start to see snow on mountaintops in the distance but the ground around me is mixed with green and brown grass with gray rocks scattered about. The roads are getting windier as the mountains are getting whiter with ice crystals and as the car’s ice warning comes on I make my first stop in a verdant landscape — a roadside waterfall. I unzip my coat as I climb 80 stairs and pass two picnic tables and a tombstone for a 37 year old (his preteen image etched in the black stone) to get closer to the water flow.

I appreciate road trips for the music diversity they introduce, not always a language thing but whether the state or country prefers rap, country, hip-hop, religious chants, or children’s songs. On my radio is a mix of English, Georgian, and Christmas music which I’m not sure is because they celebrated the holiday five days ago or if they just really like the genre and the mood it invokes. For foreign films, they will simply dub over them or just repeat after, like a translator for a public event.

Further down the road and I have a white horse sighting, which for Christians means just as much death as a black cat. It’s a good thing that this stallion also stands for freedom and the balance of wisdom and power (as all animals have during their short lives in their realm). I also see another beautiful waterfall and then a flock of birds against a grey-blue sky above leafless trees but the only thing I read into it is, “I’m having a fantastic day and it’s only just beginning.”

The mountains seem to climb up around me as the clouds begin to lay their bulk on the building tops. I look to my right and notice a small stone tower of light and dark rock with two small windows, so I detour and park along the Tskhenistskali River and by the Monastery of Saint Maximus the Confessor and begin to climb these open stairs as I take in the expansive view. What I hadn’t noticed was the way the staircase zigzags up the terrain and includes over 675 steps (I counted) of elevation, not including the ramps. I thought it would be a short excursion but the steepness continued to increase as I climbed into the clouds.

I took my coat off halfway up and didn’t put it back on even when it started to sprinkle again. The most amazing and terrifying part of this journey is the plastic boards, like a child’s popsicle stick project, that are just stuck into the mountain side, some of them loose. The trail continues over the cliff and begins to go down further from the river. I’ll leave that to come back for as I turn around and make a quick descent because gravity makes falling down easier than climbing up.

The sky is starting to fall wispily as I find a parking spot in front of Svanian Kubdari, a cafe complete with dining room that I thought was just two women working in a bakery. I saw the loaves of bread ready for the oven and pointed to one. The woman said it would take some time and showed me through the door to a rounded triangular room with a patio and a view. I wasn’t sure of the fireplace’s efficiency until I stepped outside where the loo is downstairs with its own patio and view, if you leave the door open; which of course I did, because there’s something freeing about watching snow fall and listening to the river run while your water performs its duty too.

There’s a little curtained window that draws my attention with chatter as the smell of bread baking wafts through, but mostly while I wait I stare longingly at the fortress across the bridge knowing that’s where I’m going after I finish my kubdari, a Georgian quesadilla-calzone. I’m known to eat a lot, but I’m only able to finish half of this bean and cheese concoction before going to the car to get the 6 lari and grab the rest to go as some guys show up to replace my quiet contemplation with carbonation and laughter.

The snow seems to be falling more aggressively as I make my way on foot over this rickety walkway, that’s probably as sturdy as the day it was built, only to find this stone keep, Lado Museliani Lentekhi Local Museum, to be closed. Back on the road, I follow in the tread marks of the car in front of me until I stop for a photo or a chance to crunch my foot through snow, so I don’t slip again, while getting out to de-ice the wipers, for a second time, and thin the ice sheet that’s growing on the windshield. It’s moments like this I miss sitting in the warm car while watching Caleb do this for us.

I slow down and stay in the middle of the white path using the fences as markers for their guarding ditches nearby. There’s just a memory of cars ever being here as I pass a man walking away from a dog sitting in the road. Snow starts to cover everything — statues, rocks, houses — and is transforming the landscape. I’m easily drawn in by its magic and am ready to move into one of these abandoned-looking structures, but nervous I’ll have to explain to the owner what I’m doing there.

Soon trees replace the fences job and sometimes there are railings to mark cliffs with water at the bottom. Maybe I haven’t seen snow in so long or maybe this place is still just a winter wonderland, minus children and consumerism (which have a time and place), that has me mesmerized by bark, foliage, and water in their various forms. And as thrilling as this all might seem, especially since I spent over two hours driving amongst its beauty, I would encounter some difficulty — how to handle the guy sliding down a hill towards me in his car and which path to take next.

With the snow comes one-lane travel as tires wear down the middle of the road and allow this fluffy, sticky, slippery powder to build up into little car traps on the sides, but more on that later. I pass Guesthouse Rati, not knowing that I’m still two hours away, on a sunny day, from my goal of reaching Ushguli which is on the UNESCO list for being one of the highest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe, before seeing the road closed sign; there’s no misinterpreting that.

Maybe I’d brave it be dumb enough to get stuck somewhere and have a family take me in over the winter and make me work while my husband worries about me actually having a job or not moving at all and becoming a blob of carbs and wine while the rental car company continues to add daily fees. That’s what rushed through my mind before I slowly turned the car around to avoid sliding off the road unnoticed because then I’m not a damsel in distress, just a lady with a lonely problem.

Backtracking, something only done by me if there’s only one way in and out of a park, or on a hiking trail that doesn’t loop, or some other time that Caleb will remember; I notice more kid boys on the road than cars when it snows, or grand (elder) folks and 24 year-old guys standing around. There’s a car throwing sand out in an effort to escape its snowy grasp, another driving half on the road, and yet another producing a black cloud while it struggles in this weather.

I make it back down to Lentekhi and stop at a market for some sugar to celebrate my loss and the ride ahead and whatever adventures await. I lift the lid to a double layer sheet cake and someone else’s hand gently closes it — a universal sign for no. I settle for a cherry apple juice, a chocolate bar, and a bag of homemade brittle bars for 8.1 lari. I’m listening to “Close Your Eyes” (though the more I look through all the genres the less I remember, but it seemed to continue… and I’ll put you to sleep at the wheel). Not what I had in mind at 4:20 going downhill in darkish weather with alternating rain and snow.

It seems to brighten just before nightfall and I’m listening to “Russians” by Sting, a pop song released in 1985, “if the Russians love their children too.” I need to listen to more music when I’m at home and not just save this experience for youthful memories, Dad’s house, and road trips because music definitely helps return you to a moment. I stop in Senaki and with 45 minutes until Zugdidi I will call it quits for the evening and decide to skip that as a detour instead of a connecting loop coming from Mestia that I had planned as a tour of the Upper Svaneti and their museums.

Stopped at the first hotel I saw and didn’t bother to ring the bell to bring the lady out of her room because it looked out of my price range. I went to a bigger hotel, Versali (which translates to Versailles), and got a room on the 4th floor for 50 lari. I had to sit in the lounge to talk with Caleb and tell him about my two beds, two pillows (one lumpy and one comfy), two heaters, a mini tub, and some soap from Ukraine that I’m bringing home. Caleb shared that he’s back in four-section duty and finally back to the same work schedule as the rest of the island with Fridays and Saturdays off, when applicable.

I steam up the bathroom and then semi-plan for tomorrow knowing that places might be closed because it’s Monday; the day when some Georgians will go to graveyards to pray, light a candle and sit with their family (explains why the graves look so inviting). This tradition began under Soviet Rule, 1921-1990, when churches closed and their priests left. Parks, museums, banks, and bakeries can be closed on any day they choose as there is now more religious freedom throughout Georgia.

So though tomorrow gets to maintain its mysterious appeal as to openings and weather conditions, the wedding party on the ground floor blasting English songs well past 2 am held enough allure to draw me down the stairs, between phone call and shower, to peek at the tables covered in food and dishes, the chairs filled with gossiping butts, and the dance floor a mix of laughter and swirling attire. This did not keep me up and I did not invite myself in. I went back upstairs to my warm bed and dark room, as they have all been, except for Zemeli having the blinking Christmas lights in their courtyard.

Posted in Animals, Food, History, Marriage, Media, Music, People, Places, Travel, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Cave, Canyon, and Churches in the Rain

I missed the nightlights at Colchis fountain but not the opportunity to stand on the wet stones in the roundabout and watch the water shoot up between the golden animals: large horses on top surrounded by animals in tiers, inspired by jewelry found in a nearby archaeological site from the Iron Age; which at this hour almost looked bronze as only their chests were reflecting the early morning cloudy grey light.

A large clock with a Pravoslavny Kostel (Slovak for Orthodox Church) behind it caught my attention, as did the McDonald’s drive-thru mural and its patio dining as I walked up the stairs towards closed doors and a view of the orange glow under the pine trees on the other side of the multi-spouted fountain. From here, I would drive up to Gelati Monastery through snow falling lightly on this historical church from the 12th century, a period which would also consist of the invention of checkers, the composition of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shota Rustaveli, windmills begin to replace the power of a horse (max 15 horsepower), and amidst the falling and rising empires consumed with death would be the collapse of the Anasazi culture at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Gelati Monastery

There’s a feeling you get when at the top of a mountain and perhaps this ~3,000ft high hill offers that after so many years of living at sea level or the uniform sky that leaves the trees blurry and brings the buildings into focus in their wet grass habitat that seems to be at the same upkeep level as the history it supports… if only my foundation had been so strongly set in stone. I’m grateful that as an adult I have the choice to change the way situations are handled that were conflicts in my childhood.

Once inside, I look for signs of the academy that once was but am left to search for meaning in the well-preserved murals, that seem to have been washed with time, that portray mostly men and crosses in a rich maroon color as they hold books and work together to stress a theme of a story told across many religions and continents with a moral that was the norm then and is still being misguided by zealots today that mistake ‘Love thy neighbor’ for ‘Kill those who don’t support your point of view.’

Churches, concerts, and courts are meant for the masses, so having this multi-room space to myself, with just the snow falling outside, was peaceful, considering the dead guys painted on the walls it’s still a nice place for quiet contemplation of what the past was, how the present is, and where the future will be — mine being to drive back down the hill, past the construction trucks, and a conversation with Caleb until the stairs for Bagrati Cathedral where I circle around the area with the car and park in time to see a woman throw bone knuckles from her balcony to the dogs that are barking at cars in the rain.

Bagrati Cathedral

Up the “city” steps, past the “hiking trail” steps, continue by the tree that grew another tree (both on top of a rock), to the triangular intersection with a restaurant across the way and the church, that sits along the Silk Road Corridor, is to the right. It was built in the 11th century and had its marble columns stolen some 650 years later that were returned in 1770. The temple is a cross-domed building: the dome is supported by four pillars with a singular reinforcement built into the facade — a technological innovation of the period.

This church was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and got a complete renovation that was finished in 2012 that caused it to be delisted in 2017 because the repairs were too modern to maintain the authenticity and structural integrity of the historical theme. I think it’s great to remake buildings like their predecessors but I also enjoy seeing traditional and modern methods brought together to preserve what is left of the original structure and introduce something new to bring a piece of history through to the next millennium.

The church was roofed with copper and covered in a special azure and emerald patina to symbolize heaven and the splendor of Creation, respectively. Parts of the facade look pieced together, like a child learning how to do their first jigsaw puzzle and just forcing the pieces to match, some of which were broken to begin with but the original stones that were once scattered (of the ones found) have been put back in their proper location allowing researchers, over the years of reconstruction, to confirm the number of windows and thickness of walls for a more accurate rebuild.

I withhold entry to the interior to look out across the city below, mostly tan and grey buildings mingled with some trees, and what appears to be a giant Georgian flag upon first glance but is actually two buildings that are mostly white with large red lines that may be in the shape of initials. To my left, in the yard, are two dogs who are kindly guarding the rock piles, one in the shape of a well or deep fire pit. I leave them to make my way inside as the clouds begin to part on the horizon to let in some sunlight.

The modern metal touch is noticeable on the left corner of the church upon entering the gates and once in the door, I notice some stone pillars that are part metal too. This place of worship has its fill of saints’ portraits but what it lacks in lit or melted candles it makes up for in bones, possibly perceived to be those of the holy disciples that are portrayed near them; the old femurs, humeri, and crania, some smoothed with age and some covered in pearls and lace.

How odd, to me, to find a receipt, half-burned, for the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz in the sand-filled candle pot… some 2,400 km away, to include a ferry from Kerch, Crimea. I’ve heard of burning things as a way of closure or destroying evidence, so I hope whatever the reason for this sacrifice by fire that the goal was met and the person or people left in a better state of mind. Perhaps I’m just overthinking it and the paper fell out while they were trying to pray, move all the candle ends to the other side, or take a picture.

Next up is the glass floor, about the size of an American living room, that’s protecting the structures below; part of which looks like the sun’s rays without the sun. I find the near and far, the small and large, the religious and secular details in this cathedral fascinating, and am grateful for the time and space to explore, appreciate, and photograph for future reference the time I visited a delisted site which carries a different feeling from reading a book that was once banned. How much knowledge we can never know, but how much more are we never allowed to know that we don’t know about?

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I knocked next door to a hostel but both remained unanswered. I noticed the activity of shoppers downstairs from where I parked and found the Georgian pay-to-potty: three squatty-potties with no doors and a fold of tissue paper for 0.30 tetri. What I didn’t think to ask the woman at the window is which side I should use so I very well might’ve used the men’s side, which I’ve done on purpose elsewhere to avoid a longer wait. Either way, there wasn’t an awkward moment that would make for a more interesting story.

Kutaisi Botanical Garden

Next on my itinerary, the Kutaisi Botanical Garden, founded in the 19th century and known for its Cathedral in a Tree also has some 700 species of greenery to catch the eye, a lot of the plants collected from other gardens of Georgia and Russia. I found street parking and some other cars made use of the dirt by the T-intersection. Usually, I enter a large garden with the intent to wander until I run out of the allotted time or gauge that I’ve seen enough to come back for the rest and preserve some foot mileage, but here I hoped that I was getting lost in the right direction to find the reason I chose this park from the others.

Mini lions in the Phoenix’s repose greet me at the entrance. There is a courtyard with benches and art of stone, mesh, and a multi-colored tree due to peeling bark and growing moss. The paths are wide and bricked, the trees gangly and plenty, and the flowers wet and colorful. The tree is marked with the grapevine cross, familiar in Georgia to the Orthodox church with its own history dating back to the 4th century, and the original preserved at Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

The sealed skylight and the door, with a unique frame, help protect the hanging images, bible, and teacup for holding used matches (there’s a sand-filled shelf outside for burning candles) from the weather. I could probably fit three of me in the hollowed trunk but I seem to be the only person in the park. I feel a sense of giddiness having accomplished a mini-goal in the midst of the adventure taking place in this park, in this new-to-me country, on a day in my life that could’ve just been ordinary and quickly forgotten in the mix but now gets special neurons in my memory network.

I love the covered curved benches found around the city as they seem to give off a warmer and more inviting feeling for sharing and conversation amongst family, friends, and strangers. My next acquaintance will be a fluffy grizzly bear cub of a dog. I don’t think he works here but he greets me at the pay window of the Sataplia Strict Nature Reserve where I’ve driven for a cave tour, even if I have to wait 25 minutes for it to start, while pacing in the parking lot and around the gate to read the visitor’s rules, such as “no fast movements during limited visibility conditions.”

footprint room at Sataplia

The cave was discovered in 1925 and just ten years later some 350+ hectares of surrounding Colchic (conifer and broadleaf tree ecoregion) temperate rainforest was preserved to help save the endemic, migratory, and endangered species: brown bear, jackal, lynx, roe deer, Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, strawberry tree, and Phillyrea latifolia (green olive tree) to name a few.  

museum at Sataplia

The path is lined with little bricks of history starting at 2,000 million years ago — starting with bacteria to dinosaurs and then 1 million years ago and jumping to Homosapiens. There are less than ten people on the tour. Our first stop is the dinosaur footprint room where a staff member is waiting to let us in. There’s a large platform over some rocky terrain that has evidence of some Jurassic era dinosaurs, mostly of a smaller species. This ancient history is so well preserved and I wish we could cause less change to the ecosystem for all the flora and fauna, even though death is part of the circle of life.

I feel like Dorothy in Oz as I follow the grey-bricked road past the trees that still have leaves to the ones that have dropped their bright reddish-brown ones on the ground. There’s green moss on rocks and white moss on tree trunks. We pass the museum and a closed two-story cafe that I could live in but what awaits me inside the cave will leave me enthralled and being passed by those who don’t care to capture any of this wonder on an SD card because perhaps they have photographic memories.

I try to capture it all, from left to right, zooming in and out. This cave comes with a River Oghaskura that may sustain mollusks, crawfish, and spiders nearby. It takes a 12-meters wide petrified heart to capture the rest of the audience and entice them to touch the stalagmite that’s currently competing in a wet t-shirt contest, which perhaps protects this non-beating giant from all the oils and bacterias of strangers; one of which will offer his flashlight so that I may get some better pictures.

cave spider

We only seemed to explore half the cave and come back out the way we went in (when the map shows two entrances, one probably for spelunking scientists). My camera was foggy in the 14*C cave and when it finally seemed to adjust the tour was over… too short as always. I looked into renting out a cave for a day and was surprised by how many were for sale and saddened by how many had modern amenities that completely take away from the cave appeal. Perhaps that’s the difference between wet and dry and tourist money.

Our guide now leaves us to explore the rest of the park on our own, but the glass bridge with a panoramic view is closed due to weather. The museum is centered around an animatronic T-rex and has large descriptions, with images, of the region’s geology, the forest’s plants, and animals, past and present, that cover the walls around the room. The trail is short, the trees are tall, and there’s a sanded-wood playscape beside it all.

This country’s long history brings up stories told in many cultures — evidence of a civilization that just disappeared, abandoned cities that once hosted the rush for a natural resource, the remnants of towns left destroyed by war — and Georgia has picked up those pieces, put them together, and continued on in the business of life. The outside might look forgotten but the inside is still churning with vitality, just as the laundry is still hung to dry in wet weather, and the cows, pigs, and chickens are left to fatten themselves.

I’m seeing these things as I pass through Tskaltubo on my way to Prometheus Cave Natural Monument where I meet another dog, though this one looks like a mutt waiting on his human to get out of the car. I pay the tour fee and am told there will be a wait, so I wander off into the museum to read about Jumber Jishkariani who discovered the cave in 1984 and the surrounding flora, fauna, and archaeology. I’m reading about the different cave types: solutional, lava tube, sea, glacier, talus, tectonic, and suffusion sinkholes; when I notice the sudden silence and run out of the visitor center.

Prometheus Cave

The tour guide is just approaching the steps after having given an introduction I’m sure. I have no problem taking my place in front as we descend the 50 or so stairs down to the entrance but trying to keep at the pace of others and take pictures was more difficult so when a couple, frustrated, asked if they could get ahead of me I let all nine speed-walkers go ahead with the guide as I realized I wouldn’t be left in the dark and could savor the cave to myself for a while.

There’s a mix of manmade and nature’s art and I’m grateful to have just a moment to appreciate their details and imagine their stories. I prefer people leaving murals of truth and love then selfishly signing nature in a need to feel important. With art that’s easier to share — should the owners of each sculpture, painting, or book be allowed to leave their mark of temporary passing or just respect the piece as is and leave it for the next owner, whether that’s a person, a community, or a country.

It’s amazing that “doing the same thing repetitively and expecting different results” is attributed to insanity and yet nature grows trees of varying heights in the same forest and drips water on the floor at the same rate in different caves and though the results might be similar, just as all people are the same inherently but somewhat different, there’s a sense of magic in the process that those little tweaks in mountains and rivers stand out in our eyes and therefore our minds to deliver the gift of living in a high that only nature can give.

Knowing how long these formations take to grow I stare in awe at the younglings and though I want to be here I don’t like knowing I’m part of the reason for the paved concrete path with walls and the destruction it has caused to be installed with the surfaces being smoothed to arm’s reach. Some things are better left untouched and unseen if it means they can continue their productive lifecycle without human invasion. There’s so much to learn that’s already accessible without having to make it impossible for species and ecosystems to perform the way they were intended to.

The bigger the room, the more variety of colored light there is to change your perspective based on the angle of your view… and I’ve heard red is less disruptive than white. There’s a river flowing through and though I want to reach out and touch it I think of the impact, something I’ve never thought about with any other body of water, considering the stories from dive boats to naval ships, from what happens onboard to what “falls” off. The rest of the group is out at the other end of the tunnel, most of them smoking, and the guide waited for me.

Three from the group took off walking, in such a hurry, to make the bus pull over and pick them up on the way back to the visitor center because they didn’t know there was a hill. The cave was magnificent and I would definitely go again to spend another 45 minutes amongst the wonders to be found underground. As much traveling as I have done, more than some and less than others, I should be better about carrying change; even if most of the places I go take card, use larger bills, or have plenty of coins, I blame the currency exchange for making me carry around cash like I’m paying rent, not trying to negotiate the cost of candy (not enough change) or a tour (too much change).

way to Kaghu waterfall with Dima

I drove to the parking lot of Martvili Canyon and got hassled into a 30 lari tour (that I paid 40 for because Dima didn’t have change) because of the no-parking signs and not knowing where to pay — it’s free if you can find it. We start off driving down a pot-holed road with parts of it washed out. He helps me navigate so the car keeps the rocks and river under the wheels and not splashing in my windows after sliding downhill sideways. If some hadn’t said no before this sunset adventure began, I’m sure getting out of the car to walk across a bridge over a beautiful river towards a picnic area might’ve made them turn around.

I’m glad I didn’t. I took a chance on a local and it paid off, again. He took me where the tourists don’t go often and we got to take some awkward selfies by the Kaghu waterfall so he has proof of how he spent his Saturday evening. I park us behind a sign on a curve in the road and across the street is Balda Canyon Natural Monument. The sky is as blue and cloudy as the water is clear and inviting. It’s difficult to get pictures at the dam (named Amusement Park on Google Maps and translates to “the canyon is crowded”) because Dima grabbed onto me “to keep from fall” as he had just tripped.

He didn’t smell as nice as he was which made me all the more ready to move from moss-covered rocks to the next stop on this guided excursion instead of trying to get the proper angle to see the hole in the rock under the bridge due to water flow. We finish the tour by driving back to Martvili Canyon, past the boat ramp, and up another bumpy road to enjoy the view. He invites me for a ride on the water tomorrow after asking if I had a lover and kids (said a little one is good) and if there is room for two in the car or hotel room. This is where I kindly tell him no but let him think I’ll be back for my change and another adventure tomorrow.

I drove into Martvili as the clouds turned shades of orange and pink and the radio played Tu Es Foutu by In-Grid (English version: You Promised Me) a tune I first remember hearing in Phoenix, AZ. I stopped at the first hotel I saw (and just as quickly left because it was 100 lari) but Gocha wants me to come back so he can show me around. I drove to another place, but there is no one in the lobby and the room is the same price so I found Hotel Garda (aka Canyon Hotel on Booking.com) through their restaurant bar for 50 lari, via the large sign outside that simply said HOTEL.

restaurant

This kind of signage made finding dinner easy too as on the side of a glass building was written RESTAURANT and down the wooden stairs to the left, I found Teliani Valley (aka Katkha) restaurant. After the hotel, I had walked to the market where I was able to sneak two photos (as stores don’t allow it here) while buying some chocolate-covered jammy dodgers inspired by the mouse’s boat in the animated film Flushed Away that Caleb and I find diverting.

Dinner will be badrijani nigvzit (eggplant and peppers covered with walnut paste) again. It’s a smaller serving than the others but spicier. At some point in the day, I hit a cow with my side mirror when the honking wasn’t working and it was just enough to get between bovine and pole. I would spend over two hours on the phone with Caleb throughout the day and about 16 minutes talking with Dad and Caroline on their trip in Winslow, AZ while I brought my bag up to the room, changed into PJ pants, and folded the blanket three times to lay under me to not fill the lumpiness in the mattress.

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Shadows, Sunrise, Stalin, Snow

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Awake and surrounded by darkness, I turn on the TV to watch a minute of a mustachioed man run a marathon, like an Indian version of Forrest Gump, to let my eyes adjust before walking into the dining area for fresh coffee with my cookies I saved from last night. I was waiting for the sun to touch the horizon so I could set off on foot and explore the area a bit, though I would have waited to drive as well because in the absence of light so much of the sights are obscured.

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Okona Day Church

I don’t remember if I told the hotel clerk where I was going but when he saw me step outside the front door he quickly joined me and pointed left. I thanked him as I crossed the street and admired the ditches between the sidewalk and the road — to drain the rain, keep cars from sliding into shops in the snow, and a convenient place to put potted plants if there isn’t a version of a planked driveway there. There’s an old prison-bank-museum-looking building and the only thing I can read on the sign is USAID which has given $1.8 billion since 1992, perhaps to help strip the doors, paint, and windows from this leftover frame to help another project.

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sunrise over Gori, Georgia

Casting light from under evergreens and onto the street is a small park with a monument dedicated to Nikoloz Baratashvili, which in the shadows gives the impression that he has two faces. He wrote about Georgia asking for help from the Russian Empire, a situation that would last over 100 years until 1918. He would use what little he was able to write to introduce Romanticism into Georgian Nationalism, not when he died in 1845 in Azerbaijan but starting in 1861 when he was finally published and idolized.

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Memorial of Georgian War Heroes below Gori Fortress

 

Georgia would again claim independence, this time from the Soviet Union in 1991, after a rule of 70 years. In the five day war of 2008, Georgia lost 170 soldiers and 224 civilians, left over 20,000 people displaced, and 20% of their land occupied with Russians in violation of the ceasefire. This is also the first time that a cyberattack of news websites and military hostilities took place at the same time. People have pointed fingers to blame everyone but themselves for the atrocities that humanity so badly craves.

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Virgin Mary Temple

I suppose I’ve never seen myself as racist, religious, or reactionary and perhaps that’s because I’ve not believed in something so strongly that I would be willing to kill people for it (though I’m sure some of my habits endanger their daily livelihoods). I know I’m going off-track, but countless countries/territories have killed their own people to make a point, which is why the American Constitution forbids states from seceding from the Union but they may create more states within themselves with the consent of Congress.

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Virgin Mary Temple

Some people travel for work (hotels, airport lounges, business meetings, and upscale restaurants), some for pleasure (resorts, Instagram worthy beaches, yachts), some for escape (from the 9-5, the abuse from a loved one, or as a way to find a new life interest), and for some, there’s a passion to find more — history, knowledge, understanding, empathy, beauty, and love — and to share that with the world you encompass. I know there are many more reasons why people cross borders and try to redraw them to international acceptance but lines in the sand are arbitrary and used to divide people when we should be coming together and growing more positively.

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Virgin Mary Temple

Anyhow, I continue past the tall and skinny pine trees as the sky begins to change colors and see the Okona Day Church, walk on the cobbled streets past three iPhone stores, and read some graffiti, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here!” Some of the homes look like the façade of a Western main street with modern brick and stone upgrades. I reach the entrance path to the Gori Fortress and am met with a guard dog who is easily tamed and maintains its distance while I tell him about the amazing sunrise he’s about to miss.

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I always wondered if my dogs appreciated the broad visual newness I gave them, but being inept in vision as they got older definitely didn’t help, though they always loved the sounds, textures, and smells of a place in a way I couldn’t… or didn’t want to. The wind picks up as I move away from the protective shell of shops and homes and up the hill to take a picture of the fort and then the sunrise, then turn and repeat using the stairs to my advantage until they turn me behind a wall and block the view of the sky that resembles a ripped blanket on fire.

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There’s a fenced-off hole in the ground when I reach the top and I turn my back to the sun peeking over the mountain and the ferocious wind to get closer to the edge for another look. On the other side of the Mktvari River is the St. George’s Church which offers a steep hike, whether on foot or via car, to this picturesque place on the top of the shorter peak in the mountain range. I should’ve taken the time to walk around the perimeter of the fort built by the 13th century and looked up how to get to the church built 500 years or so later, but I’m always leaving something to come back for.

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Gori Municipality Administration

I can barely make out a badge on his shoulder as the rest of his body is covered by a green military blanket while he lies on a cot. Under his youthful face looks like a pillow my dad could sleep on, one stuffed to the max with origami, where the kid’s head is attempting to make a dent to escape the cold. His guard shack is half wood and half glass and there are a thick pair of gloves next to a ceramic cup. I slowly step away as not to disturb him while also making sure I don’t trip over something that destroys me.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I decide to pet the dog that approaches as I’m leaving the fort but our meeting is short as his two friends catch up and they run off, squeezing under a fence and probably looking for breakfast. This draws my attention to a little green bin surrounded by cigarette butts with the sticker “Ultras Against Racism” on it. Ultras are extreme sports fans that use banners and flares in stadiums and also like using their influence to support their political views. I also learned that the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was started as a charity to push Sharia Law. The year of the Arab Spring legalized the group but it was later considered to be a terrorist organization by many countries.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

At the end of the path is a house that appears to be abandoned, but many of the lived-in ones give that impression from the outside. On the wall is written a bunch of expletives so, of course, I must go and walk down the stairs built into the sidewalk past the bottles and broken doors. I probably would’ve entered the gate at the bottom had it not been locked. I’m quite sure someone knew I was coming and helped keep me from an international incident due to trespassing and not being able to explain why I felt important enough to go on private property.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

Next on the morning’s agenda is to see the Memorial of Georgian Warrior Heroes, but first I must pass by a small sacrifice of books and what appears to be a steering wheel cover but is actually a much longer hose that has been set on its cardboard pyre for its partial burning before being left charred and covered in ash. Perhaps this is some foretelling of what these men have seen, and if so, I’m grateful they managed so I hopefully don’t see that violence so close in my lifetime, though others are still forced to struggle with that reality while trying to find a place to call home.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The statues are massive as each one sits on a stone in a large circle, all broken in their own way — stab wounds, missing limbs, and decapitation. I take them in one-by-one and then as a whole to acknowledge the solemnness of this historical marker. I’ve spent the morning in my sole company so the man on his morning walking run quickly grabs me (not literally) out of the mood by tossing a piece of bread to a dog who is now taking the liberty of pooping in the middle of a large, but luckily clear, intersection.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I’m drawn into the courtyard of the Virgin Mary Temple and after a walk around the perimeter make my way through the colorful entrance, with a mosaic above the door, into a more highly painted scene, some of which is still in progress — and all using a majority of baby blue, brick red, and honey orange to tell the story of Jesus. I’m then frozen as one voice is joined by another by sounds I’ve only heard recorded, Gregorian chants, that speak to my soul as the words aren’t for me to interpret but to feel, and it’s magical. I would be drawn to any meeting place to leave with this sense of wellbeing instead of the fear and guilt I grew up with attending services as a child.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I’m walking on thin ice (meaning in a precarious or risky situation; also referring to a song by Pink Floyd released in 1979, episode 57 of MacGyver aired in 1988, and a documentary that was premiered on Earth Day 2012) back to the car. I’m sitting at a red light and watching the countdown timer for the left green arrow and wondering how many accidents that helps prevent by providing the driver a more accurate measure of how much time is left to get through the intersection. Perhaps it’s just the courteousness of the driving population in general that sets the standards for road manners regardless of local regulations.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

Approaching Uplistsikhe Cave Town and there are friendly roadside horses and rambunctious dogs that can’t control their excitement but to bark and chase the car. I’m nervous to get out for fear they will scratch my camera or me if they’re the jumping kind but they seem to know that they’re not allowed inside the gate, neither is decorating, destroying, or drinking. Beware of the falling rocks and people and pay 20 more lari for a guide service if you need an interpreter.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The path to the “lord’s fortress” historical-architectural museum-reserve starts to the right and looks like the rock has been worn down by wagon wheels for more than two millennia. This place was re-established in 1979 after six centuries of abandonment, but no longer as a hub for religious, political, and commercial activities although a church and basilica are still present. I take the tunnel to get inside, and once up the 80 plus stairs, I see the one building that’s not like the rest of the surrounding structure, a difference which can clearly be seen from the road as well.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

The view is awe-inspiring as I imagine the wealth of possibilities spread out in the river, trees, plains, and mountains beyond. I picture the people here busy learning how their world works via creating language, making food, studying religion, and surviving attacks as other cultures and empires clash for control of the region. As I climb higher, the scene gets more expansive and the wind more bitter. I take refuge in each room between the more virulent bursts of unseen air to see the burnt stone with modern names carved in and concrete supporting this elderly structure.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

I could live here with the built-in shelves and stoves, but would definitely want a Dutch door installed to block the wind but keep the sun coming in. There are faint greens and blues with bright rusts and whites, either growing bacteria or mineral deposits, that have agreed to this living arrangement minus the need to adjust for the weather as it meets their requirements perfectly. There’s also a touch of candle wax from the multitudes of visitors that may be trying to connect with their ancestors or praying that their life maintains its friendly warmth and isn’t soon left to be cold year-round.

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Uplistsikhe Cave Town

There are stairs, paths, and numbered signs but I’m not concerned with marking them all off my list of things seen here as I’m more focused on the varying heights of arches, random rocks in the sand, and how the landscape changes in the summer. I wish I’d been given more time to talk with my grandparents about less trivial matters but they each had a drama of their own and none of them contained the secret to the past that I would be looking for here. I would love to hear or comprehend the simplicities and such difficulties that were required for daily survival in such a harsh environment as the past.

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The church door was installed behind a piece of rock that juts out from its arch, so it wears a simple red scarf to make sure it stands out more. Inside is the austerity of decoration and the deterioration of architecture; the faces are darker and the candles unlit. Back outside is a cute Western Rock Nuthatch, a small passerine bird, found in 19 countries from Slovenia to Iran. The birds use rock crevices as homes and as a place to wedge seeds and snails to assault them with their beaks until they break.

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I pass by the wine cellar, number 11 on the map, the most northerly structure here, and definitely modern. I don’t proceed closer due to the little wire wrapped lock to keep the gate closed and the short stone wall I could step over. I don’t know if there are visiting hours or if it’s closed for another reason. Over the rust-colored bridge and the flat rock, past the other entrance with twice as many stairs, and I’m once again on the outside of this piece of history (as time capsules are smaller and interesting in their own right).

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Stalin Museum

All it took was me lifting my camera in the museum to lose that privilege. It was a small hall with a few items pertaining to the caves and a film that talked about the role the Silk Road aka the Transcaucasian Trade-Transit Trunk played in forming the region as it changed due to the politics, economics, religion, and military control of the current empire until the route’s decline in the 15th century when sea transport became a more popular way to deliver Chinese silk to the west.

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Stalin Museum

Religion also played a role as Christian monks and missionaries built temples within fortifications as a place for those traveling in the North Caucasus to change horses, spend the night safely, and hire a guide for the next part of their journey. The area and route would see Arab control bring Islam, Pagan worship from the Greco-Roman pantheon, and the spread of Buddhism from China. Remnants of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Daoism structures also remain as a reminder of how trade is more than just an exchange of goods, but of belief systems, languages, and lifestyles.

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Stalin Museum

Sharing my path with nature is something I grew up with and there are parts of childhood, no matter how disturbing the background, that brings comfort as an adult — this is one of them. I spent time riding a bike or running through the woods, looking out for horses, goats, cows, turkeys, and sheep (not all owned by us) along with all the dogs we had through the years. I was a birdwatcher before I knew it was a professional hobby and used to spend part of my day watching clouds go by, plants growing at their pace, and lying quiet so I could hear bugs dance and sing undisturbed.

This memory makes watching the Eurasian magpies fly, the hooded crows eat, and the Georgian mountain cows walk along a bridge all the more memorable as I wish I had more time for moments like this. I look forward to Caleb retiring, even if just for a year, so we can both spend days enjoying the simplicity of life that technology has afforded us. This thought process makes me want to go back to dirt roads and aluminum roofing for slower traffic and a lullaby on rainy nights. I appreciated what I had as a kid and I still do because life has brought me love and lessons and left me longing for more, but when I’m traveling with just the bag on my back, I feel I have all I need.

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Stalin Museum

I drive back to Gori and abruptly pull over to get a piece of bread the size of my steering wheel, like a large fluffy pizza crust, after seeing it in the baker’s window. I park the car in front of the municipality administration building to walk along Stalin Avenue to the museum also dedicated to the former dictator. Outside is a replica of Stalin’s house rebuilt under a yellow stone tent with white columns and an orange and yellow stained-glass roof — a star surrounded by squares. The larger building looks like it holds a university, but walking inside feels like being a wealthy individual greeted by a collonade, marble stairs, and a chandelier.

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Stalin Museum

I make my way merrily to the top of the stairs and take in the royal view of a red carpet, purple light, and more marble. The windows have colored glass and metal shutters cut into a pattern to add depth and delicate design to the interior. I’m about to waltz through this museum when the upstairs doorkeeper kindly lets me know I’m not gaining more access until I go downstairs and pay my 15 lari. I’m back in three minutes with my little slip of blue paper with the price and image of the museum on it in the corner under half a circular stamp.

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Stalin Museum

Room one is mostly pictures of people who helped the varying ages of Stalin, a tinier replica of his house, a woven image of him, and documents such as “The Morning”, a poem by J. Dzhugashvili in a 1916 edition of “Deda ena”, a book by J. Gogebashvili for learning the alphabet and elementary reading. The second room has a book by Stalin, “Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR”, 1952, and a table from the conference room in the Kremlin. The next room is all military based photos of soldiers, maps, guns, smoke, and Stalin in uniform.

The exhibit hall contains gifts from the countries who loved him around the world — a lamp with a tank commemorating 9 May 1945, a carpet of Stalin and an officer from Baku, Azerbaijan, and a grain of rice from India with a microscopic message on it. There’s a small corner room that gives me the feeling of being in a giant sarcophagus mausoleum with a head bust on a pillow and black walls. Another hall for more books and busts and cases filled with a metal vase from Germany, a colored sand portrait from Ukraine, red Dutch clogs, and plenty of pieces from Georgia and China.

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I stop for a powdered donut on the way back to the car and it tastes like a fluffed hamburger bun. I will pass three soccer fields (only green in town in the winter), two sleeping dogs (taking permanent naps), and some fat chickens as I drive north. I realize that the police always ride with their lights on (if not it’s a speed trap). I also pass wind turbines, fruit stands, and trucks with carcasses hung up for roadside shopping. I notice snow starting to fall and appreciate the quality of the roads as I realize I get to drive through the inspiration for Winter Wonderland minus the crowds and flashing lights.

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The roads are surprisingly clear for the amount of snow on the trees and options to stop are limited — railing, tree line, rock face, ditch, and concrete barriers. I’m grateful as I pass a man up to his knees in the snow that I didn’t try to pull over and risk getting stuck as the fog starts to settle on the street. A car passes a semi-truck going uphill around a turn forcing me to hit my brakes or them head-on going downhill on a wet road. I’m about 10 km away from my planned detour and I stop for juice. The first place wouldn’t give me the display, the second shop only had water and Pepsi, but the third store had cherry nectari, not Fanta.

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After passing a NATO Partnership Training and Education Center building I’m approaching what I think will be a tunnel, not arched and reinforced but simply cut from the rock. It turns out to be a small cave with two staircases and a fountain that perhaps works in another season. It seems I won’t be riding the famous cable cars of Chiatura today as I’ve found the ones used to transport coal and then my phone loses signal so I’m unable to search for the other one.

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Rain joins the fog and parts of the road are missing so I either have to go around or crawl over the damaged sections causing me to pay much more attention to a road than ever before. I still let cars and dump trucks in as I focused on the passing headlights, noticing most of them are dim or dirty and only one driver had their brights on. This inclement weather doesn’t slow them down and they always use a blinker. Here, the “children crossing” sign is more of a “children playing karate” sign. I’m happy to be back on the highway, this has to be a first, but there are so many missed picture opportunities of houses and buildings that the American system would condemn based on the under-construction appearance that the locals use to fit their needs.

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I was able to stop and see a statue though that looked like a soldier being protected by his guardian angel. On each side was a flag, the well known red and white one on the right and a half blue – half green with an orange cross on the left. Down the street, on a corner, stands the Katskhi Monastery. From the tattered sign, I’m able to gather that the church was built over 1,000 years ago, was burned and rebuilt twice, the roof of the dome is like a half-open umbrella, and that hundreds of books were rewritten here. I took a minute or five too long appreciating the outside to even get a peek at the inside. When the woman was getting picked up by her husband, he asked something and she looked back at me as the answer as I scurried through the gate so she could lock up.

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The low-air light on the dashboard comes on and I pull over to a gas station, most equipped with air, tires, fluids, and other car essentials like water, snacks, and coffee are to the drivers. The guy restarts the car in an attempt to reset the symbol. Then he holds the unlock button on the key fob until all the windows roll down. It’s a neat trick but it won’t be helping with the tires. On the second stop, I went up to a shop window and held my phone up for the five guys to read and one guy got up from the card game. He checked the tires and told me to circle the lot and said I was good to go.

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I wish I could’ve just trusted their judgment but I didn’t want to be left stranded somewhere so I went to a third gas station and this guy didn’t read Georgian. I didn’t feel like taking the time to get onto his wifi to change to Russian, so I continued on to get an actual third opinion from another guy who agreed with the first two. Then I had a guy inside the shop offer me his tour guide services. I thought he was trying to sell me food or a boat, so I’m sure that would have been an interesting experience.

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Katskhi Monastery

I had plans to see some places tonight in Kutaisi but with the tire issue, sprinkling rain, and still needing to find a room I decide the attractions can wait until morning. I knocked on a door, rattled a gate, and the third place was in ruins. I was on my way to another guest house and stopped at Hotel Rio because I saw the sign and parking for three, possibly six if I got blocked in. The two Russian girls walked me down the long hall to room 7 with a single bed and told me 40 for the night after they searched to make sure the translation was right. I thanked them and grabbed my bag from the car and what’s left of my bread, that’s now the size of my hand.

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The girls offered me tea and coffee and came down to my room to turn the heat on. I wish they could do the same in the bathroom, where the door seal keeps the cold air and water tightly within, so I’m hoping the hot water warms the freezing floor. As I wait for my room to warm up a bit so I can start to remove my coat and boots I look up at the heater that reads, “Don’t put your hand into the air outlet.” I trim my two chipped nails and get some semi-warm tea down the hall, in my socks, to drink while I talk with Caleb as he walks home with John and Justin, a coworker and his husband.

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